Monday, September 3, 2012

Windsor not

Having just spent some cozy days in London, Paris and Venice, you might think we sought out the clubby British ambiance of The Prince as a refuge from the culture shock of our return to LA.

After all, The Prince is old, has a dignified English heritage, opening in the 1920s as the Windsor, a high-end restaurant in an exclusive apartment building across from the Ambassador Hotel.The entrance is discrete, understated - a simple brass plaque marks the door.

Its curved, red upholstered booths welcome you. Leaded windows, deep crimson Victorian wallpaper and figures of armored knights lend a uniquely British flair. Vintage lighting and antique paintings lit by brass picture lights - it all make you think you've gone back to an earlier era, one that appreciates traditional European culture and continental cuisine.

You'd be wrong.

The Prince, in Koreatown, is the quintessential LA experience.

The upholstered booths at The Prince
What could be more LA than a 90 year old British-themed bar in Koreatown that serves fried chicken with chopsticks, grilled eel, chips and salsa, Korean beer and soju cocktails?  And of course, it wouldn't be an LA joint unless it has a long pedigree of appearances as a film location in major feature films.

British with Koreatown style
Some might find the neighborhood a bit dicey, but to me it looks like old LA mixed with new. The abandoned hulk of the Ambassador Hotel is finally gone - now it's a large educational complex that's part of the LA Public School system. The Windsor Apartments with its red awning, its mellow brick gables, stone quoins,sedate boxwood hedges would fit right in on the Upper East Side of Manhattan or Covent Garden. It faces a typical LA 60's stucco apartment house.

The dining room at The Prince
When you walk in, it takes a moment for your eyes to adjust to the darkness, and walk down a short set of step into the lounge. The impact of the decor overwhelms you. The bar - an obvious "improvement" dating from the '80s - thrusts through the clubby crimson atmosphere like a neon mothership, bright flat-screen TVs flickering.

The lamps behind the booths at The Prince
Settle into the cozy red-leatherette upholstered booth, and check out the decor. It's almost surreal, with lamps that are figures of uniformed British soldiers, Beefeaters, or butlers. The waiter brings the menu, and a starter of tortilla chips and salsa. The booth has a little buzzer you press when you want to summon your server.

While the Prince serves cocktails, mixed drinks and soju - a Korean liquor - we ordered a big bottle of Hite beer to share. Happy hour starts at four, but the place really gets hopping later at night.

Depending on the time and mood, you might hear lounge piano, hiphop, or oldies blaring on the PA. There's a back room where, when I passed through it to go to the bathroom, seemed to be the place older Korean folks liked to hang out. Out in the main room, it's young people, usually non-Asian, and seasoned drinkers at the bar.

The Prince is known for its fried chicken, which has been featured on Anthony Bourdain's show "Layover." Korean fried chicken, also called tong dak, is a classic bar-snack in Korea, and a lot of The Prince's customers come after concerts at the nearby Wiltern Theatre to drink and eat.

We tried the half-and-half plate - half a fried chicken and a half-portion of the boneless spicy chicken. The fried chicken was crispy and good, but puzzling to eat, since it was served with only chopsticks and no knife and fork. The spicy chicken was fried nuggets of chicken in a sticky, spicy, sesame flecked sauce, and fried rice sticks - dukbokki -  were mixed in with it. The dish was served with a slaw of shredded cabbage and daikon, a cup of pickled jalapeno slices, and a chili-flecked dipping sauce. There was a plate of moistened rice paper - one could fold chicken, slaw and chile together in a wrap, to dunk in the sauce.

We also ordered the kim chee fried rice - which came with a fried egg on top and the ubiquitous slaw accompaniment.

The Prince's menu also features Korean dishes worth exploring like galbi, or beef short ribs, squid served fried, steamed, sauteed Korean-style, and squid sashimi; Korean; braised pork, spicy udon noodles, and a spicy pork sausage called soondae.  There is an assortment of Korean-style pancakes, made with seafood, meat, vegetables and rice.

It also features more exotic dishes - one wonders whether it takes a few large bottles of Hite beer before ordering the spicy sea snails or the pigs trotter with oysters served on the side, the marinated chicken gizzard or the grilled eel.  At one time the Prince's non-English menu offered sannakji, or Korean "sushi" of live octopus tentacle. If you're not squeamish - I'm serious about this - you can read about it HERE.

Which only goes to show you what some people will do with enough alcohol in them. Sadly - or maybe happily - this delicacy is no longer offered at The Prince.

During the early evening, though, it's quiet. The booth next to ours held two college girls, chattering away over their soju cocktails and dumplings. A family with a little girl came in, moving to the back room. An older lady came in, bringing something in a carry-out bag as a gift to the slender, bored Korean girl slouching behind the bar. The round booths were empty - briefly - so I could wander over and take a photo.

We've all come to accept "fusion" cuisine restaurants, those sleek emporia blending pan-Asian and Western styles and tastes. But The Prince isn't a contrived "fusion" place - it naturally evolved,  by way of the dynamic goofy energy and cultural synchronicity that is uniquely Los Angeles. If you're visiting LA, it's worth a try


Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

Once again, you write with such descriptive words of a place that others would just pass by without a thought.

I'm squeamish, so I won't be clicking that link.

M. Bouffant said...

Ahh, 7th St., the other side of Education Central. I'll let you know what I think if I get down there.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe I didn't know about this place. Thank you!

Aunt Snow said...

We should go there, Claudia! And any LA readers!

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

Very cool! I would probably spend my entire meal gawking at the decor. Oh, and I can't let the fabulous Windsor Not pun go by unnoticed. Nicely done!